Finance (No. 2) Bill

Part of Bill Presented – in the House of Commons at 4:05 pm on 1st April 2014.

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Photo of Ian Swales Ian Swales Liberal Democrat, Redcar 4:05 pm, 1st April 2014

I do remember that, but I would make some comments about it. First, at that time we had not seen the note left by the previous Chief Secretary to the Treasury saying that there was no money left. Secondly, and unfortunately, the Liberal Democrats were 269 short of an overall majority at the last election, so we did not have the power to implement our manifesto. Thirdly, VAT is a good, progressive way of raising money from the wealthy. [Hon. Members: “No it is not.”] I suggest hon. Members do the maths and have a look. I suggest that those who doubt that talk to someone on the minimum wage and ask them how much standard rate VAT they think they are paying, given that there is no standard rate VAT on their housing costs, food, energy and utility bills, children’s clothing, public transport, TV licence and insurance. Standard rate VAT is not paid on any of those items.

After the number of enforcement and compliance staff in HMRC was slashed by 10,000 by the previous Government there was such a culture of tax avoidance that six years ago a Radio 1 DJ thought it was fine to pretend to be a second-hand car dealer in order to avoid paying £1 million in tax. I am pleased that this Government are doing something about such avoidance, including in that particular case, and overall it is clear that millionaires had a much better time under the Labour Government.

I now wish to discuss some other items in the Bill, the first of which is the marriage tax allowance. That is the only area where I have sympathy with the Opposition amendment, as the measure was not a Lib Dem priority and it does affect only one part of the community. For example, it gives no benefit to a couple who are both on the minimum wage. We did not win the argument there and it is one area where we might have done things differently. The Opposition amendment then makes a comparison with a 10p tax rate—I would have thought they would not have wanted to remind people about the 10p tax rate and the fact that they doubled taxes on the lowest paid in this country, but by reviving it, they revive those memories. It is pretty irrelevant, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies says, because we can simply raise the minimum threshold by half as much and achieve the same effect, or a very similar one. So that proposal is something of a red herring and a grim reminder of how Labour ignored the low paid in the previous Parliament.

The amendment also refers to energy bills, and that reminds me of what we often see from the Opposition: writing the headline first and then filling in the detail afterwards—at least that is how it appears. They say that they want to freeze energy prices and they must be pleased at the recent Scottish and Southern Energy announcement, but they should examine the small print, because they would see that it involves the company cancelling investment. Of course, that was highly predictable when the price freeze was first announced. Everyone from the OECD to uSwitch has rubbished the policy, because the price freeze will also freeze investment and freeze the position of the big six. The idea that it will somehow damage the big six is nonsense because, as all observers say, it will freeze out investment by new players. I have six power station projects live in my constituency right now and I can tell hon. Members that this price freeze announcement is totally spooking the financial investors for those projects. Labour’s policy will lead to lower investment, less competition, more risk to supplies, and, ironically, higher prices. If it wishes to persist with this policy, it needs to produce some independent experts who think it is sensible, but I have not yet found one who does.

Despite the fact that the shadow Business Secretary has put his name to the motion, it does not contain a single word about business, which tells us something about Labour’s stance. It also cements its reputation as an anti-business party and shows that it has learned nothing from the fact that, on its watch, manufacturing halved as a proportion of the national economy.

The Budget is good for business. It has been welcomed by the north-east chamber of commerce, the Chemical Industries Association, the Federation of Small Businesses and many others. As a north-east MP, I had a lot of sympathy and empathy with what Bridget Phillipson said.

I welcome the £100 million extra for apprenticeships—the number of which has doubled in my constituency. Despite the unemployment position in the north-east, we have, believe it or not, a skills shortage, so those amounts are especially welcome.

I welcome the support for manufacturing. The doubling of capital allowance to £500,000 will help those who wish to invest. As a joint founder of the all-party group on energy intensive industries, I especially welcome measures to support those industries. We have been congratulated on them by the steel industry, although it would like to see the measures implemented more quickly. I also welcome the support for low-carbon technology in the Budget.

In the end, we must generate jobs, particularly in areas such as the north-east. Over the past year, unemployment in my constituency has come down 22%, youth unemployment by 31% and long-term unemployment by 14%, and they are all significantly lower than they were in May 2010.

I share the concern of the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South about the EU. There was a large inward investment project heading to my constituency last year. We expected it to be signed, but suddenly, on 18 September, it was switched to France. I am certain that the uncertainty over our position in the EU was a factor. That was disappointing, but it just shows that all this talk is damaging the economy now and not just in the future.

I am pleased that the Finance Bill includes another round of tax-avoidance measures. The Government have taken many steps in that regard, but there are many more still to take. I welcome the publication a couple of weeks ago of the base erosion and profit shifting paper. I hope the Government will act on that, and look in particular at the shifting of profit through interest payments. Of concern was the fact that the paper mentioned the possible exemption of infrastructure industries from any measures in that regard. In particular, there was a mention of the private finance initiative industry, which ballooned under the previous Government. For example, junctions 1A to 3 of the M4 is 50% owned in Guernsey, 50% of schools in Redcar are owned in Jersey and, most absurdly, the whole of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs offices are owned in Bermuda. The exemption of those companies that have put in place those structures and the suggestion that they are not shifting profits out of the UK needs to be looked at again. At the very least, we should consider how PFI business cases are assessed, as it seems to be the norm to move the profits out of the country.

Labour has very little to say about this Budget. In fact, the Leader of the Opposition had nothing to say. The Opposition do not seem to have a coherent plan, although some of their measures are at least interesting. They appear to be using the same statistician as the leader of the UK Independence party for some of what they do. Although there is a long way to go, this Finance Bill will produce a stronger economy and a fairer society, which is what my party wants to see.